By the time we got to Banjar, my then-boyfriend (and still dear friend) Jesse and I had been in Indonesia for a couple of weeks. His Uncle and Aunt live there, in Banjar, on the northern coast of Bali. After spending those first few weeks in hostel bunks and eating more food stall fried noodles than could possibly be healthy, I was relishing the fresh market vegetables and steaming hot shower on offer. We had our own room with a big comfortable double bed, a pool out front, and in Jesse’s uncle Keith, a guide for the village and surrounding areas.
The luxury was also perfect timing. We were both sick. Like, head-is-a-lead-weight sick. To the point of seeing the local doctor and being diagnosed with ear, sinus, and throat infections. We began a regiment of ear drops and double antibiotics and mustered as much energy as possible for exploration. Luckily we had a solid home base, access to a car, and plenty to do and see in the area.
Uncle Keith had connections throughout the village, and one of the first things we did (or, at least, I think it was one of the first things…my memories of that stretch are a bit hazy) was drop in on a local dance class to watch young girls practice traditional Balinese dance. The experience started similar to what we’d become used to in Indo: people scurried around to procure chairs and sat the hesitant white tourists front and center. Once everyone was settled, the practice resumed. After asking permission via translation, I snapped photos and took some short videos while the girls performed.
Dance performances were on offer just about everywhere in Bali, it seemed, but being on a budget we’d skipped all the tourist-style shows. Instead, we’d been scootering around to food stalls, swimming, hiking, and visiting various temples and shrines. In the travel brochures and posters, we’d seen dancers dressed in ornate costumes of vivid colors and gold accents. Their eyes were brightly made up with colored shadow and thick black liner, the background an adorned stage, often in a hotel venue.
At the practice in Banjar, the girls were maybe 10-13, wearing traditional sarongs
with scarves wrapped tightly around their waists, but on top they wore t-shirts or polos. The room was small and open at the front; it had concrete walls and a tiled floor, a fan and a basic stereo system. They did a dance in two rows wielding golden bows (I’m assuming arrows would be part of the real performance).
The dance itself seems to be in the details. The music is tonal, without much of a melody. With bare feet, the bodies are all angles, the movements sharp with emphasis on the head, hands, and face. There always seemed to be a flicker of fingers, or a darting of wide eyes back and forth (even some well-timed blinking). It was fascinating and almost unnerving to watch these young girls be so rigid and serious.
Balinese dancing has been around for a long time. According to BaliSpirit.com:
In the early 15th century the art culture of Bali changed when artists fled from Java. At this time cultural beliefs of the Balinese and Hindu came together through dance. Balinese traditional dance culture has a unique history that includes various types of dance. Part of the history includes understanding historical events that inspired many forms of dance practiced in Bali today. Before Bali adopted various forms of dance people identify with the culture today and before the adoption of Hindu religion, people used dance as a way to fend off evil spirits through dance rituals.
Centuries later, in 2015, UNESCO inscribed the three genres of Balinese dance to their List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Wali are sacred dances, often ceremonial or religious in nature. Bebali are semi-sacred dances. Balih-Balihan are dances for entertainment purposes, dramatic performances, and social gatherings. UNESCO’s listing also speaks to the tradition and training of Balinese dancers:
In addition to being technically-skilled dancers, performers must have charisma, humility and discipline and a special spiritual energy that enlivens the performance. In Balinese communities, dances are mainly transmitted informally to children from an early age, within groups. Training begins with basic dance movements and positions and progresses to more intricate dances. The sessions continue until the students have memorized the sequence of movements. Traditional Balinese dances provide participants with a solid cultural identity grounded in the understanding that they are safeguarding the cultural heritage of their ancestors.
The girls in Banjar looked to understand the importance of carrying on their heritage. But that may have just been the class setting. I’m sure outside of practice they did their normal share of goofing around and giggling.
It turned out our visit wasn’t over when the dancing ended. We did an about-face in our chairs and were treated to a gamelan performance. Gamelan is an orchestra of percussion instruments that can accompany Balinese dance performances. It was the same tonal music that had been playing on the stereo during the dance only it was live and...much louder. I’ll be honest, it was a bit raucous for my variously infected head, but it was fun to see the students play – all showing different levels of interest in being put on the spot.
We did other things during our stay in Banjar – waterfall hikes and temple visits. I spent one day sleeping and laying by the pool while Jesse visited surrounding villages with Keith (turns out Jess has a much stronger immune system than I do). But the dance practice stands out as one of the coolest things I got to be a part of during our 5 weeks in Indonesia. If you ever find yourself in Bali, I highly recommend checking out a performance, even if it’s a tourist performance in Ubud. The style is entrancing and well worth your time, even if you’re dreadfully under the weather.